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Perspective: Two New Studies Address Jobs in STEM

crowded office
CREDIT: Terry E. Smith

Two recently released reports consider the overall labor supply-demand balance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and reach very different conclusions. One report, "STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics," from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, argues that there's a shortage of science and technical workers. The other, "Jobs Americans Can't Do? The Myth of a Skilled Worker Shortage," from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- a nonpartisan policy group that normally favors limits on immigration -- argues that there is a glut. The difference in their conclusions could hardly be starker. Yet the two reports have much in common.

Are workers being driven out of STEM fields by lack of jobs, or lured away by better opportunities in other fields?

The reports agree, for example, that opportunity in academic science is poor. "We agree with Michael Teitelbaum's (2008) empirical analysis, that in certain subsets of the market for STEM workers, demand is low," write the authors of the Georgetown report. "The evidence is clear that this is especially true of the academic market for Ph.D.s in STEM." From the FAIR report: "In recent years, S&E [science and engineering] graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have endured longer times to degree completion, an increasing prevalence of low-wage graduate and post-doctoral positions, and a decreasing availability of tenure-track positions at universities."

The two reports also agree that people trained in scientific and technical fields are leaving those fields in large numbers. The report from FAIR argues that scientists are forced out of STEM fields because there aren't enough jobs. "There is no evidence that there is, or will exist in the foreseeable future, a shortage of qualified native-born scientists and engineers in the United States," the authors write. "The glut of science and engineering [S&E] degree holders in the United States has caused many S&E graduates to seek work in other fields."

The Georgetown report is framed as an inquiry into why previous reports have reached divergent conclusions. The answer, they say, can be found in the "diversion" of workers into what many -- including this publication -- have long called alternative, or nontraditional, careers.

While the United States seems to be producing enough STEM workers to fill traditional STEM jobs, the Georgetown authors write, the migration of people with STEM-related competencies into non-STEM occupations leads to STEM-worker shortages. "Even when the numbers indicate that we are producing enough STEM graduates for STEM occupations, we do face STEM scarcity in some occupations because STEM-capable workers divert from STEM into non-STEM occupations."

Why do these workers leave STEM? Are workers being driven out of STEM fields by lack of jobs, or lured away by better opportunities in other fields? There's unlikely to be a clear-cut answer.

The Georgetown authors address the question directly. They note that, according to the most recent Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System data (from 2006), just 17% of those with Ph.D.s who leave STEM say they left because they couldn't find a job. They go on to speculate that the actual percentage of those who can't find a job is probably even lower, since many who make that claim are overly choosy or constitutionally unemployable.

I disagree. It's likely, I think, that the number who leave because they can't get a job is larger, not smaller, than 17%. Career-changers are often advised to avoid negativity. Admitting that you can't find a job is a bad idea for job seekers; few would answer that way even on a confidential survey. Furthermore, anyone who has spent time around aspiring scientists will find the suggestion that they're unemployable ludicrous; socially inept scientists do exist, but most are earnest, personable, and very smart.

Recently, Science Careers columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly drew my attention to an essay by Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School, which was published in October in The Wall Street Journal. Beryl wrote about the essay in this blog entry.

"The perceptions about a lack of skilled workers are pervasive," Cappelli writes. "But the problem is an illusion." Employers perceive a worker shortage, he writes, because they "want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time." Employers "need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice," he writes. "Unfortunately, American companies don't seem to do training anymore."

A second reason for the perception of a shortage, Cappelli says, boils "down to the fact that employers can't get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That's an affordability problem, not a skills shortage. We can buy all we want at the prevailing prices."

If companies would stop seeking exact skill matches and seek the help they need among the many workers currently available -- including, I would argue, the nation's 100,000 or so science postdocs -- they would "vastly expand the supply of talent" available, "making it both cheaper and easier to fill jobs." This is a case where "company self-interest and societal interest just happen to collide."